In 2011, Andy Weir’s novel The Martian was published and promptly became a bestseller. Then, in 2015, the film directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon came out. So here, in 2019, is my belated comparison of the two. (Also, here is my review of the book.)
I’ll ramble, then I’ll score both versions. The categories I’ve chosen are: plot, characters, setting (which means set design/costuming—anything that visually brings us into the world—or worldbuilding, depending on which medium), writing, and overall watch/readability. Of course, this is purely my opinion. You’ll have different feelings and ratings, I’m sure.
There will be SPOILERS for both film and novel.
Overall, this film is entertaining: The casting is flawless, the cinematography is good, the sets are excellent, and the soundtrack is perfect (I’m glad they kept in the disco music mentioned in the novel).
The pacing of this film works well. They leave out only a few events from the book, which I’ll get to later. But they do take the time to establish Watney’s bond with his fellow astronauts, so his subsequent accidental abandonment is more emotional. Then, the action proceeds in a logical sequence, with a few key pauses for Watney to explain some of the more technical aspects of his survival.
In fact, having a film version of this story almost works better than a written one. I mentioned in my review of Andy Weir’s novel (LINK) that sometimes the narrative leans too much on simply telling the reader what is happening, rather than showing us through action. Here, on screen, this sort-of-issue is negated. Rather than Watney explaining what he has done after the fact (such as constructing his potato farm, retrofitting the rover, etc.), we watch as it happens. And through the personal logs (now video rather than text) Watney only explains the math, science, and engineering. Not to say how it was done in the novel was bad, but the film might just do it a bit better. We’re with Watney in the moment, seeing him go through these struggles instead of hearing about them later.
Furthermore, the time spent with other characters is fantastic—everyone looks pretty much how I pictured them, and it’s an excellent cast. Chiwetel Ejiofor stands out as Kapoor (not that I’m surprised; he’s always wonderful), but so do Donald Glover as Rich Purnell and Mackenzie Davis as Mindy Park. I also have to give a shout-out to the casting directors for getting Sean Bean. The “Project Elrond” scene was so much better with Boromir himself being there to help explain what the codename meant. I loved that part.
The changes made to the storyline are minor, which is a relief. Toward the end of Watney’s time on Mars, in the book, he loses contact with NASA after an accident with the comm system, encounters a massive sand storm, then flips the rover during his efforts to reach the Mars ascent vehicle. The film cuts this, which was probably for the best, as it’s almost two and a half hours long already. Besides, at this point, he’s been through enough.
However, the biggest change occurs at the end. While Watney is semi-stranded orbiting Mars, his friends on Hermes are trying to reach him. He suggests puncturing his suit and using that as thrust to bridge the gap between their ship and him, but Commander Lewis shoots him down (not literally, though). But in the film, they allow Watney to try this. I found it a bit silly and far-fetched, especially considering the rest of the film had more believable-sounding science. Furthermore, I liked how at this point in the novel, after having done so much virtually alone to get to this point, he takes a leap of faith and gives himself over to the help of his friends. He no longer has to carry the burden of saving himself alone; he has a team again. Still, I suppose the “Iron Man” stunt made for a good, suspenseful final scene during the climax, and gives him most of the agency in his own rescue. He is the hero of the story, after all.
Anyway, for me, both the film and novel of The Martian are stellar (pun intended). Both have slight pros and cons, but are ultimately tell a great story. I can easily recommend both!
Setting (set design/costuming) 9/10
Setting (worldbuilding) 10/10
Verdict: The Martian (the novel) > The Martian (the film) but just barely!